Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Dave Lucas' Poetry Survey/Interview

Poet Dave Lucas sent me a survey/interview for his poetry class at Gilmour Academy, and here are some very tentative answers, answers of the moment. Underlying these questions, of course, is that dizzying feeling regarding what one "ought" to be teaching, in order to nurture these young writers--and, if possible, to prepare them to make the leap into the poetry scene. It's vexing, because I'm aware of how partisan and limited my own responses are to these questions; I want to prepare students to get the great range of poetries, but I also want them to become obsessed with a couple writers, to know their craft inside and out. It's very hard to achieve both.

1. Is there a prevailing “period style” in English language poetry today?
As is the rule in our postmodern age, there are period style(s): ultratalk poetry (Halliday, Goldbarth, Kirby), Iowa school post-Ashbery (see the anthology Legitimate Dangers), post-avant poetry (which includes everyone who went to Penn, UBuffalo, etc., the Flarf Collective), New York School the umpteenth generation (which has overlaps with the previous two), etc. The differences are fairly wide, even in the groupings. Institutionally, I find Poetry Foundation's website so incredibly different from Poetry Magazine that my head spins (I recently had an article on poetry as news, which quotes Reznikoff to Public Enemy).

Actually, I think critics, such as Charles Altieri, have been able to talk about period style (he has an interesting reading of period style for the 1980s) because they've excluded so much poetry and focused on their version of what they see as dominant. But it's poetry, not pop music, and the economic differences between these brands/schools are rather small (that is, if economics could be counted as demonstrating dominance).

2. Who are the major poets of our day?
Everyone wants to say Ashbery. He is a major poet, but he's overrated, simply because he's so universally beloved. As much poetry as I read, I find that I'm incapable of being anything but partisan and personal about "majors": Robert Hass, David Wojahn, Yusef Komunyakaa, Jorie Graham, Bob Perelman, Lyn Hejinian, Harryette Mullen, H.L. Hix, etc. Do I choose them because I've studied with them? Because people tell me they're major? Probably yes, depending on the case.

What about rising poets, born after 1950? Born after 1960?
"Rising" suggests some sort of Great Chain of Being, or some resurrection, which belies the chaos on the proving grounds of poetry. There are a number of young poets whose work I find exciting and/or vexing: David Berman, Jen Bervin, Jenny Boully, Michael Magee, Kasey Mohammad, among many others. It's hard because I end up half-admiring, and half-hating them because I feel competitive with poets my age.

3. Who is overrated? Who is underrated?

Billy Collins (witty and occasionally moving, but the universe of his poems is coercively bourgeois), Ted Kooser (any poet laureate is overrated), John Ashbery (simply because everyone seems to love his work--even Ashbery once said that he wished critics could do a better job ascertaining the successful poems from the unsuccessful, rather than just picking out the lines they liked). This question will get me into trouble.

4. Who are our best critics of poetry?

Among poet-critics, I still love Robert Hass' TWENTIETH CENTURY PLEASURES. I'm deeply unhappy with the criticim in Poetry Magazine. I find critics like Adam Kirsch sound as if they were already seventy years old. He's my age, yet there's a ponderousness and conservatism that seems weird to me.

For daily criticism, it's fun to read Ron Silliman, though he's often grandiose about his post-avant opinions. Charles Bernstein is a thoughtful and thought-provoking critic/partisan for the avant-garde. But there are a host of scholars whose work is interesting and important: Cary Nelson, Charles Altieri, Marjorie Perloff, Lynn Keller, among the established generation, and Ben Friedlander, Michael Magee, and many others of my generation. Present company excluded, of course.

5. Everyone’s read “Can Poetry Matter?” Can it? And does it matter if it matters?

Yes, and it does. It does matter. If it matters to you, then that's all that matters. Fuck what anybody else thinks or says. Mr. Jello CEO is worried that poetry isn't central to the culture, or that it's gotten too wrapped up in its own conversations. In this way, it's like every other niche cultural practice. All this handwringing about poetry and the public seems much ado about nothing, secret code for "why does no one pay attention to my beauty?"

One example for how poetry can function as critical social intervention, from my book BEHIND THE LINES:
"Certainly, poetry thrives most particularly in the local. As W.D. Ehrhart mused:
What was the point of my reading antiwar poetry to the members of the Brandywine Peace Community? These are folks who chain themselves to fences and hammer on missile warheads. But what they hear in my poems confirms them in their beliefs (which are not easy to hold and maintain in this culture…and renews their spirit and commitment; it gives them a sense of connectedness, of not being entirely alone. That's worth doing, even if it is on such a small scale (there were maybe 25 people there that night)."

6. For some it’s Meatloaf, others Danielle Steel. But who is your poetry guilty pleasure?

I consider much music to be poetry. If you read my blog, I like to talk about Guided by Voices, Ted Leo, Fugazi and other rock song lyrics with the same intensity as poetry. After all, pretentious rock lyrics were in part what drew me to poetry.

7. Let me steal a question from the New York Times fiction survey: What’s the best single book of poems of the last fifteen years (no Selecteds or Collecteds allowed)?

CATALOGUE OF COMEDIC NOVELTIES by Lev Rubinstein, a book that I translated from Russian. It's been the most influential book to me personally, and one that I've spent the most time with. It's exploded my idea of the possibility of poetry, a post-lyric poetry that is warm and traditional and edgy all at the same time. If you must press me for an American book, I might say "Spring Comes to Chicago" by Campbell McGrath, only because of the "Bob Hope Poem."

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